ACCIDENTAL?

The Accidental Radical (Jonathan Rauch, July 26, 2003, National Journal)

George W. Bush could end up realigning partisan loyalties and redefining what his party stands for. […]

"If you can get fundamental reform," the administration official says, "he’s willing to put up the dollars to get it." That about sums up the Bush approach to domestic policy. […]

"The Republican Party in 1994 tested a proposition," says a White House aide: "that people wanted government to be radically reduced. And they found out that people didn’t want government to be radically reduced." Bush saw this, and he saw that the anti-government conservatism of Goldwater and Reagan had reached a dead end; and if there is a single characteristic that distinguishes Bush, it is his willingness to meet a dead end with a bulldozer. In 2002, "he really did set out to have the Republican Party stand for something different," says Michael Gerson, who signed on with Bush in 1999 and is now his chief speechwriter.

Bush’s view, expressed in his book and in the 2000 campaign, is that government curtails freedom not by being large or active but by making choices that should be left to the people. Without freedom of choice, people feel no responsibility, and Bush insists again and again, as he put it in the book: "I want to usher in a responsibility era." […]

The plan, therefore, has both tactical and strategic elements. In the short run, give people things they want; in the longer run, weaken the Democrats’ base while creating, program by program, a new constituency of Republican loyalists who want the government to help them without bossing them around. Most important of all, however, is what might be thought of as the meta-strategy. […]

Conservatives, for their part, believe that today they are the ones who stand for progressive change, in the face of "reactionary liberalism," but they have never been able to convince the public. That is what Bush seeks to do, both by rejecting the mantra of minimal government and by passing reform after reform. Never mind how you feel about any one of his initiatives; as a group, they seek to establish that it is Republicans who now "stand for the idea that the old ways will not work." If the Democrats dig in their heels and fall back on stale rants against greed, inequality, and privatization, so much the better. The voters will know whom to thank for the empowering choices that Republicans intend to give them. As for which is the "party of nostalgia," the voters will also remember who defended, until the last dog died, single-payer Medicare, one-size-fits-all Social Security, schools without accountability, bureaucratic government monopolies, static economics, and Mutually Assured Destruction. […]

In the book, Bush returns again and again to his theory of political capital. Page 123: "I believe you have to spend political capital or it withers and dies. And I wanted to spend my capital on something profound." Page 218: "I had earned political capital… Now was the time to spend that capital on a bold agenda." His aversion to hoarding approval seems to flow as much from his personality as from his political experience. On page 2 he recounts hearing a sermon that "changed my life." It was, he writes, "a rousing call to make the most of every moment, discard reservations, throw caution to the wind, rise to the challenge." A few pages later: "I live in the moment, seize opportunities, and try to make the most of them."

Bush’s mentality seems more like that of an entrepreneurial CEO than of a conventional politician: He tends to look for strategies that cut to the heart of the problem at hand, rather than strategies that minimize conflict. "He doesn’t like ‘small ball’ — that’s his term," one of his aides says.

"My faith frees me," Bush writes, early in his book. "Frees me to make the decisions that others might not like. Frees me to try to do the right thing, even though it may not poll well. Frees me to enjoy life and not worry about what comes next." He clearly is not a man who fears failure.

The best essay on George W. Bush since Bill Keller’s.

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